Hal Gold – Unit 731: Testimony

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In the anime Paranoia Agent, the state of victimhood rescues people. People suffer from all kinds of stress – sometimes personal, sometimes moral – and and an American-looking dude hits them with a baseball bat. Once they get hit and fall unconscious, no one really cares about their past life. It’s all about helping the poor victims.

I don’t know how much the creator knew about Unit 731, but that anime is obviously tied to the atom bomb. Saying the atom bomb rescued the Japanese from admitting their war crimes may sound obscene, but isn’t there some truth to that? How many people know about the atomic bomb and how many know about their aggression in China in general? For example, in Israeli history students learn about the atom bomb but not one thing is said about the rape of Nanking or Unit 731. We see movies about the Holocaust often. Is there an internationally recognized day for the victims of Japan?

This isn’t about whether America should’ve bombed Japan or not. It’s an interesting, difficult discussion we mustn’t avoid – but it belongs in a different book. It’s about understanding what can drive people to do such horrors. The book doesn’t relish the gore on display. there are some juicy details – babies being bathed in frozen water, a person being constantly executed and somehow never dying, diseased people forced to have sex and then give birth. The point is more about shocking you that yes, people can do these things.

Haven’t we learned this lesson from the Nazis? Yes, we did. The difference is, the Nazis were losers and were the villain. Stories about the Holocaust may horrify us, but we often distance ourselves by painting the Germans as a bunch of villains smokin’ cigars and laughing maniacally. Japan were supposed to be victims. When one country – and the losing country at that – does it it’s just villainy. When a people that are supposed to be victims do it and the winners sweep it under the rug, it becomes scary.

When people object to the ‘tyranny of science’, they may sound like a bunch of crazy luddites. The scientific theory is one of the integral pillars of civilization. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without science. No idea is safe from corruption, though. The idea of people torturing and inflicting pain in the name of science may seem like recipe for a cartoonish villain in a Hollywood movie.

That’s reality, though. One reason Unit 731 was allowed to remain hidden was because the data was precious enough. The scientists were given immunity if they handed over all the information they received. Many of them went to acquire high positions in Japan, especially academic positions. Even the history of something as great as science is stained by blood.

It’s a perfect example of how horrible war is. Since the data from Unit 731 was pretty useful for biological warfare, many of the masterminds could go on with their lives, being scientists if they handed their data. In a way, they got redeemed because of the action that demands redemption. Imagine if Dr. Mengale was given a high position in a university because he made some scientific discoveries.

The history is fairly brief, since the main role of the book is to deliver the testimonies. It’s a good piece of history, but not a very detailed one. As an introduction into the topic though, it’s good enough. The writing is precise, not too filled with jargon and the story is fairly easy to follow. The book creates a unique niche of itself in the literature of Unit 731 – by providing an easy introduction and a more personal look.

As for the testimonies themselves, what Gold says in the introduction is true. They’re messy, sometimes a bit incoherent. That’s okay since they’re speeches by people who are trying to remember a horrible event from a long time ago. The messiness of it also comes from how the people in the unit didn’t know what they were doing. The testimonies come mostly from low-level workers. The masters weren’t going to risk their position in Japan.

Some testimonies are better than others, but I understand the inclusion of them all. Unit 731 was destroyed. Everything was blown up and footage and pictures were hidden or destroyed, too. We will never have access to the full story, so we must make do with the little we have. Don’t expect to get a coherent story out of these. It’s a collection of anecdotes, but fascinating ones.

They’re presented with a minimalism that’s frightening. Imagine if Raymond Carver wrote a collection of short stories about people in a laboratory conducting these experiments. Then again, what other way is there to tell these stories? They’re blunt. Details aren’t gory, they’re just there. Some horrors cannot be painted with any language. You cannot express being horrified and you can’t tell the full details. Just saying they forced diseased people to have sex is enough to cause a shock.

It’s soaked in pain. Reading this book is both easy and difficult. The language is as minimalistic as a hard-boiled thriller, but to know so much pained was caused by human beings can be too much. As harsh as they are, we need these stories of pain. This book is an anti-war book. If there was no war, it’s possible Unit 731 wouldn’t have existed.

Now, I don’t think we can just lay down our arms and war would be over. Both sides need to lay down their arms for this to happen. Yet what will cause them to do it? At some point, I don’t think ideological or territorial conflicts matter much. We need to stare at the abyss without blinking, without romanticizing it or dramatizing it. We need the cold, hard facts of how much pain war causes. It really doesn’t matter whether Japan should be hated for what they did, or be forgiven because they got the atom bomb. What matters is we humans are capable of producing such pain, but no one wants to suffer through this. Until all of us – and I’m including every single continent, since the narrative is of ‘Evil West’ is too easy to swallow – are horrified by war, it won’t stop.

Reading about Unit 731 is essential. This far into human history, it’s time to know exactly how much pain war causes. War doesn’t only result in people shooting each other. Civilians are murdered in their homes. Great ideas like science are being abused. Schools today preach a lot about the glory of programming and getting your own start-up company. I don’t think this is what will prevent another Unit 731.

4 out of 5

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Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5

Robert Graves – I, Claudius

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Game of Thrones is crap. There are very few positive things you can say about it. Martin’s prose is clunky and the story goes nowhere. Any little character development that he had gets lost. There is something engrossing in a huge drama of constant betrayals, violence, sex and powerful people. The powerful and famous people always lead a wild life. Why settle for Martin’s crap when I, Claudius exists?

Everything that Martin’s book is supposed to do, Graves does a whole lot better. Comparing something to crap isn’t much of a praise, but I, Claudius doesn’t just highlight these faults. It’s a powerful novel that succeeds on all fronts – prose, characters, events.

Graves creates a strange mixture of familiarity and distance. We often think of ancient languages as hard to read, but Graves’ prose is plain. The sentences are sometimes long, but never go poetic. Nothing in the prose resembles the epic poems of Rome or ancient Greece. It’s closer to Paul Auster’s maze of thoughts.

This style traps us inside Claudius’ head and brings him to life. It also highlights the similarities between our world and ancient Rome. We’re all logged on, hearing what party this powerful family threw or who’s this actor is dating. It happens everywhere. Being popular in high school, which is a small environment makes everyone a viewer to your life.

It’s not enough to just present a series of dramatic events. You need a perspective that will bring meaning to those. That’s why the decision to have Claudius narrate the novel is brilliant. He’s actually not present throughout most of the novel. It’s an impersonal story about other people doing things he didn’t witness. Claudius’ perspective is everywhere though, even when the ‘I’ of first person doesn’t appear for 20 pages.

Claudius was an outcast. Like any outcast, he has no choice but to question the foundation, beliefs and ways out life of the society that cast him out. It doesn’t mean he’s some social justice warrior who fights for the Common Folks against the evil tyranny. He’s not one of them, either. He’s almost completely alone in his intellectual pursuits. All he can do is look with detached eyes at the mess that is the royal family.

George Martin expected us to care about the bullshit of the Iron Throne. People lead great lives, had servants, an endless supply of lovers and food and still felt bad. Despite all they had, not having the crown was unbearable to them. Martin wanted us to take this seriously, although a common person – not even a poor one – would be happy with a quarter of what the a royal member had.

Graves is willing to laugh at this. Using Claudius, he presents the ridiculousness of it all. These are people who are offended by the slightest things. They are so thirsty for power, yet it’s this thirst for power that causes them all to be afraid of each other. The Senators offer to grant people honours, only so people will suspect them and then kill them. There is one instance where someone put the coat on the wrong peg which lead to the coat falling and then someone stepping on it. This caused an animosity that later ended up in one bloody murder or another.

No one dares to question the purpose of it all. No one takes a moment to look at what he has and try to make the best of it. Claudius, born disadvantaged, is merely happy to have access to intellectuals and time to write history. He’s one of the few who finds something else to do besides being a popular and well-known figure. He’s the nerd who was busy working on his skills instead of trying to be popular.

That doesn’t make him a saint, though. He might be an outcast, but he’s closer to the royals than to the common people. He doesn’t detest the commoners but he’s not exactly on their side. In a way, he falls to the same trap as the royal family. His whole world still revolves around struggles for the throne.

Aside from a few small digressions, the story concerns itself only with how the Big People lived. The ordinary people get a few names, but their stories aren’t told. He sometimes talks about how the Emperor generally treated him, what he did for their benefit or took them. Claudius never comes down to the streets to document how they lived.

For all of his claims of being an objective historian, he can’t help but get sucked into the silly wars of the royal families. Then again, how can we blame him? Why should Claudius step down? He found himself a comfortable position enough – hiding from the fighting in his libraries and villa. He learned a little more empathy due to his casting-out, but outcasts still care about themselves most of all.

He has one dramatic and hilarious story to tell. The story of this dynasty is truly unpredictable. It has nothing to do with random deaths. It has to do with the fact that this culture, while being similar to us is very different. There are all kinds of bizarre moments, like Caligula’s bridge of ships and how a pear tree was charged with murder.

There are no such bizarre moments in Martin, because he never created a different culture than ours. All he did was create a gloomy world of decent people and overly cruel ones. In Martin, the cruel people want power because it gets the plot moving. Here, people want power because it’s part of their character.

Both Tiberius and Caligula are presented as cruel, but these are different kinds. Tiberius and paranoid and afraid. He destroys everyone who he thinks might be out to get him. He acts out of a lack of self-confidence. Caligula is the opposite. He’s so sure of himself that he thinks he can do whatever he likes. He enjoys his power so much he does think for the sake of adrenaline and instant gratification. Dropping people from the audience to the arena and building a bridge of ships is part of the same character.

This humanization makes for a much more grey area. A lot of people suffer because of them, yet we’re not invited to hate them. We’re invited to understand why they act so. Claudius narrates in a dry tone that does more to add an air of objectivity. When an emperor does something right, it’s not hidden from us. Even when they’re cruel we understand that from Caligula’s point of view this is the right thing to do.

Grey morality is not when nobody is right, but when you can understand a cruel person even when we disagree with him. These are just a bunch of people running around, doing what they think is the best for themselves.

The humanization makes the violence all the more shocking. Sejanus is a horrible person. We’re never given a reason to like him, but he’s just another power-hungry guy like everyone else. His death is shocking because it’s clearly the death of a person. There is something meta in how the Romans cheer for his death. They cheer for the death of an antagonist like Martin fans cheer for the death of their most hated character. Violence isn’t shocking when the people who suffer are just plot devices. When they’re characters with wants and needs, when they feel real it’s scary.

The only weakness is in the narration style. It’s told in a summary fashion. It allows Graves to sum up a lot of events in a few pages, but it also creates a distance that is too wide. It’s not a problem with the emperors. They’re all well-developed and unique, but many others are just names that do a few things and then die. At least there is a meaningful reason for this. The emperors were the dominating characters. The characters who get the most developed are the most powerful ones. It’s not a case where characters get different levels of importance without a reason.

It’s been a while since I read such a brilliant novel. It gets so many things right. The characters are well-developed and memorable. There are hilarious moments and equally horrifying ones. The story is thrilling. It hints that big things are coming while making sure What Happens Now is also entertaining. It deserves its place in the canon.

5 murderous pear trees out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Alias Grace

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Shitty authors often fill their books with useless details. It’s a sure sign the book is bad, but it’s understandable. If you have no idea what works, just throw everything in and hope something sticks. The problem with this shotgun approach in novels is that novels are whole pieces, and so it’s hard to isolate the good parts. Some good authors fill their books with details, and then chop off what doesn’t turn out to be a buried gun (see also: Chuck Palahniuk). Why do talented authors leave a lot of details is puzzling.

There’s no need to put a cover on Alias Grace. Buried in it is a brilliant mystery novel that uses it genre to create meaning, not just to create a puzzle. Atwood made a career of exploring the female experience, and the novel is almost the definitive one about our perception of women.

The phase ‘benevolent misogyny’ sounds crazy, and too bad the other term to describe it is ‘victim privilege’. These things exist, though. When people perceive you as lower than them, some of the ways they treat you differently will benefit you.

The perception of women was so narrow that it even excluded some terrible prejudices. Since women are viewed as pure until someone has sex with them, the idea they can be violent didn’t occur to people. The only reason Grace has a chance at redemption is because she’s a woman. No one thinks James may have been innocent, or cares what his reasons are. Boys will be boys, and James is just a boy who couldn’t control his violence.

The question of whether Grace is innocent or not isn’t answered, because the definitive answer isn’t the point. The point is what’s reader answer is and how much of it is based on Grace being female. The purpose of the puzzle is not the right answer but to examine our reactions.

Sexism is more complex than just making one group feel bad. Sexism goes both ways, with positive ideas about an oppressed group stemming from them being considered inferior.  Atwood realizes that and this is why Atwood is one of the best authors on the subject.

Even in her comfort zone where she writes about discrimination, she’s still great in it. Her treatment of the subject is never black and white. There are sexist pigs. There are women who accept their position in society. There are men with savior’s complex. The contradicting sexism takes place in the same mind. Dr. Jordan seeks to help the outcasts and the insane. When you give him a woman desperate for love and an ugly servant, he’s regressing to the sexism he grew up with.

A common problem in Historical Fiction is that the authors give the historical characters a modern mindset. A third wave feminist in the 1800’s looks silly unless we get a reasonable explanation how she stumbled on these ideas. It’s like a person who talks about digital property before the internet was invented.

Atwood avoids this flaw. She knows that people who grew up in a sexist environment will think sexist thoughts, including women. I’ve seen plenty of women spit misogyny, such as slut-shaming and victim-blaming today. Of course Grace will buy into her role as a woman, and of course Dr. Jordan will treat ugly women in disgust if that’s all he knows. Thankfully, as time goes on and events pile up, events that challenge these perceptions take place. That’s Grace’s murder role. It’s there for people to question their ideas about the sexes, both the negative and positive.

These ideas are fully explored, so at least Atwood’s shower of details isn’t meant to cover up a lack. It doesn’t make it any less puzzling. It’s not a difference in prose style. Even at her most maximalist Atwood retains a gift for sentences that flow easily. She overcomes the challenge of writing in a less modern style, but unnecessary details remain unnecessary no matter how easy they are to read.

Everything little thing is described. These are not the purposeful descriptions of McEwan. Atwood has no modus operandi for choosing what to describe and what not to. The effect is similar to the shopping lists of Dragon Tattoo. They revealed nothing about the characters. Women had an obsession with appearances back in the day, but these aren’t descriptions that are focused on the beauty of things.

If Atwood wanted to express the characters’ obsession with things looking good, then she’d focus on the beauty of things. The shopping list is a static technique. It exists to give you a blueprint of how a room looks like, but it’s only important so you’ll understand the characters’ movements. Beyond that, telling us the color of the rag is unimportant unless the color or the rag has importance.

Less annoying are the words of wisdom that are dropped between paragraphs. There are many quotable moments, but they feel like they came out of an unpublished Words of Wisdom. I’d love to read a book like this by Atwood. Every novel I read by her paints an intelligent women, but it’s not believable when it comes out of Grace’s mind. She’s portrayed either as enigmatic or simple-minded. Intelligence isn’t a trait, so why do these pieces of wisdom tell us about the character?

The fairly-complex structure isn’t as harmful as these techniques, but it also feels like an unnecessary complexity. The exchange of letters is interesting, but they belong in a story more focused on Dr. Jordan. His main role here is to show a contradictionary sexist mind. He has an interesting psychological arc that gets drowned in too many descriptions and fear of exploring him. He never becomes the presence that the men had in Life Before Man. He exists to show us how Grace looks from the outside. There are too many passages on his life in general that are more than necessary to show he exists beyond the plot, and not enough to make him like a hero of his own story.

The news clippings in the beginning of chapters are better. In fact, Atwood should’ve used them more. She could have used a variety of clippings to show the subtle differences between sexist opinions. She has enough negative capabiliy to paint sexists as human beings while not justifying them. More clippings would allow her to experiment with the sexist mind.

The flaws in this novel prevent it from being great, but it’s still a success. Atwood is too good at prose, so even the filler writing is pleasant to read. The treatment of Atwood’s favorite subject is also the best she did so far, and it’s only over-writing that keeps this behind Cat’s Eye. Atwood said she doesn’t see herself as a feminist writer, but her literature is the ideal feminist. She doesn’t present a cliched narrative of bad men and angelic women (which is just another form of sexism anyway). She uses feminisn to question how think about sex and gender roles. There’s a lot to learn from her.

3.5 simple murders out of 5